Sound and Ambience — John Cage

John Cage was an America Avant-grade composer who heavily influenced mid-20 century music. He studied music with Richard Buhlig, Arnold Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss and Henry Cowell.

Cage used percussion ensembles to perform his compositions, he also experimented with creating works for dance. These experiments and collaborations lead to a long creative and romantic partnership with Merce Cunningham. His early compositions were written in the traditional 12-tone method, the same as his teacher Schoenberg. By 1939, he began to experiment with unorthodox instruments, such as the “prepared piano”, he also explored tape recorders, record players and radios in an attempt to go beyond the traditional mind set of western music and it beliefs of meaningful sound.

Cage became disturbed with the notion that music was only for communicating something and because of this he nearly gave up as a composer. He believed that if communicating through music was all he could achieve then he would give up, unless he found a better reason. It was then that he turned to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophies, he began to think of music as not only what a composer could create but as something that could be generated out of anything, he believed that music was created to ‘sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influence’ (Cage — An Autobiographical Statement). Cage’s carefully cultivated principles of composition enabled him to expand the definition of music, he began to experiment with indeterminism. He used many devices to ensure randomness. In his later works he extended these freedoms over other media, including, light shows, slide projections, costumed performers, etc.

After hearing a lecture by Nancy Wilson Ross about Dada and Zen, Cage began to look into silence. From then on, his work became an exploration of non-intention, he believed that ‘silence is not the absence of sound but was the unintended operation of my nervous system and the circulation of my blood’ (Cage — An Autobiographical Statement, it was this realisation that lead him to compose 4’33” in 1952.

One of John Cage’s most prominent techniques was the use of indeterminacy and the use of chance operations. He used these two techniques in his composition 4’33”. For this piece he has taken away the conductor and the orchestra’s control over the performance and given it to the audience.

I have used John Cage’s technique of listening to silence, through my recording of human activity in the State Library. I spent 4 hours sitting and recording in different locations within the library and moving around it. This period of time allowed me to experience the space as not just a quiet library, but as a space that is used for many more things, such as school tours, meetings and student study.

Once I gathered my recordings, I put them together by taking the sounds that broke the silence and layering them over the top of the recordings that were pure silence or just the humming of the air-conditioning. This technique allowed me to re-create Cage’s practice of performing silence and heightening the sounds of sthat emerge.

Within my recording there is typical library activities such as a quiet atmosphere, laptop typing, the air-conditioning, and people going through books. The longer I spent there I became more attuned to the sounds of people talking quietly, moving around, coughing and a multitude of other quiet activities. My observation was, that at first the library seemed like a daunting place where you couldn’t utter a word, but once I was settled in a location and quietly observing, the noises initially drowned out by the silence, emerged and the library was actually quite noisy.

Introduction to ‘The music of John Cage’ — James Pritchett,,

John Cage Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works, The Art Story,

John Cage-American composer, Encyclopaedia Britannica,

John Cage:: An Autobiographical Statement,,

The Music of John Cage, Google Books,

Tom Service, A Guide to John Cage’s music, the Guardian,



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